Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Path of Least Resistance

(Pictures are of horses for sale that I have in my favorites!)

Well, today was the first time in over a week that I was able to get out to the barn. It is just Murphy's Law that I would get sick just as soon as I finally had a horse to play with! Unfortunately, I have really bad allergies to horses, hay, sawdust, etc. etc. and so wanted to give this nasty chest infection I have a fighting chance of clearing up before going back. I am still sick but couldn't resist any longer.... AJ was calling my name.
(5 yr old mare, green broke, quiet, $1500)

His owners and I have an understanding that I will work with him on simple ground manners (think showmanship- walk when I walk, stop when I stop, turn on the forehand, etc.) and simple arena riding... none of this fancy dancy, mambo jumbo natural horsemanship hogwash! Fine by me! As I said before, this pony (me) has more than one trick!

(9 yr old, decently bred, trained cutter, $6500)

So today I worked on lunging, voice commands for walk/trot transitions, standing ground tied, standing quietly for tacking, picking up the feet, and leading. He did really quite well... though I have to say that I am shocked at how little he knows considering how well he does for his owners on the trail.

(8 year old mare, trained in cutting in reining)

I am also baffled by the amount of resistance this horse has built up in his head, poll and neck. I have worked on getting his shoulders loose, they can still be sticky (and a little explosive when they get unstuck) but when push comes to shove, he wants to lean on that halter, take his head, and go!

(11 yr old, mare, dead broke, safe, 4500)

Now for those of you who are thinking, "Um... What? In English please!" Here's what I am talkin' 'bout!....

When you lead a horse, you should never feel any amount of tension in the lead rope. Your horse should follow your body's motion with a slack in the line. If I stop, I expect my horse to stop and stand quietly until I walk on. If I walk on, I expect my horse to follow. I do not want my horse to continue standing until the pull of the line drags him forward- I want him to anticipate the pull of the line before it happens and walk with me (unless I have dropped the lead line on the ground and told him to "stand".)

AJ doesn't seem to want to "get" this....

Horses are logical animals that are driven, almost always, by the path of least resistance. Meaning, they tend to avoid pressure, pain, or hard work when you give them an easier alternative.

(8 year old, finished reiner gelding, 6500)

When I walk forward and AJ does not, the line I am holding firmly will become taunt and pull on the end of his halter, causing pressure to be created on the band that runs over his poll (behind his ears). This is a little uncomfortable for a horse and something they should naturally want to avoid. If AJ walks forward when I do, the line between us will not be come taunt and therefor will cause no pressure to his halter. The first few times I ask him to walk with me, I teach him to move off of this pressure by making sure that, as soon as he steps forward and gives to the pressure on his poll, I let the line go loose and give him the relief his actions afforded him.

(7 yr old mare, well broke, $3000)

But AJ is not sold on this idea when it comes to leading. He gets the "move off of pressure" thing it in every other area, (hip, shoulder, standing, driving forward, etc.) but not in his head.

That is not to say he is not getting better. He absolutely has become much more light and 3 times out of 5 he is now walking with me when I go rather than lagging behind. The force of his resistance (pulling back and in to the pressure rather than moving away from it) is 30-40% of what it was... but it is still there....

(5 year old mare, very well broke, hauled, 4500)

Which, IMHO, must be dealt with and worked through or it WILL show up under saddle and in other areas... as it did today on the lunge line....

Because when a horse gets "sticky" like that... (sticky meaning that he'd rather lean into pressure rather than move off of it)... only one of three things usually happen...

They lean into the pressure (pull back) until finally something in their brain triggers them to....

1) step forward and magically the pressure goes away! Bingo! Wasn't that easy?


2) They pull, pull, pull and then ... Check out... "Oh my God! Run!!" Blow forward, run over or through anything in their path...


3) They resist... pull... pull a little more.... a little more... and then they freak out and pull back with all their might, turn on their heal and run! (The trick to stopping this one is to snag that lead on your hip, keep the pressure on their line tight (give them no relief) and go with them as they back up, following them as best as possible and only giving in once the stop and take a step forward.... Oh yah... and this one is easier said that done!)

(9 yr old Chocolate Chic Olena gelding, dead broke, 6500)

So, with AJ, he pulls, pulls, pulls, and then finally takes a step forward. The "pull, pull, pull" has turned into just one light "pull" but it is still there.... which means that when I turned the heat up, that one "pull" turned back into "pull, pull, pull, Blow up!"

Here is what happened...

(Example of how NOT to take a picture of a horse for sale! 5 year old, mare, well broke, $3500)

I asked AJ to move out into a trot on lunge line to the right. At the top of the circle, closest to the gate and where the rest of his herd was hanging out, he wanted to pull on the line of my hand and run off the circle towards his buddies. I bumped him off the line (made it uncomfortable for him to lean into the halter by giving short, abrupt, jerks) and drove him forward. This went on for a circle or two...or three... until finally that little resistance turned into an all out blow up. He threw his head to the side, took his shoulder with him, and blew out of my circle, backing up quickly, hopping and rearing in an attempt to pull the line from my hand.) Thankfully, I was able to hang on (though I wished I had remembered to put on some gloves! Ouch!) and he did not get free.
(7 year old, reining trained, dead broke, $4000)

His next response was to take off in the opposite direction! This "do the opposite of what I've been asked" is a common equine tactic. Usually, when they have tried and failed at one form of resistance, they quickly try doing the opposite and see if that works any better!

So... I pulled him to a stop, drove his shoulder back the way he had come and sent him back around just as if nothing had happened. He tried this twice more in that direction but as it got him no where, he finally relented and made two or three nice circles with the line slack and no resistance. I rewarded him by asking him to halt and letting him stand quietly and blow out for a minute or two. Then we went the opposite direction. Of course he tried the same tactic but found only the same result and so settled quickly into moving along nicely and giving to the line. I again rewarded him but quitting the exercise. I expect that next time I ask him to lunge he will try the same maneuver (and when that fails) will have devised a few more tricks to try on me..... just to keep me on my toes!

I also expect that, so long as I continue to correct even the smallest form of resistance (each and every singe time), eventually the habit of leaning into pressure will give way to the habit of moving off of it!

Or so I'm told.


  1. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all followed the path of least resistance? Horses are so wise. And stubborn.

  2. Oh dear! Maybe a rump-rope on him would do the trick if he still resists moving forward when you do? My mare was very bad when I got her, like AJ wouldn't walk with you and waited until the pressure started on the halter, then she'd blow up and sometimes rear. I didn't use a rump rope on her because she hates it with a passion. Persistance is the answer though, keep at him!

  3. Hey, I really like that 5 yr old mare for $4500. But in this economy, I'm betting you could get any one of them for less.

    It really sounds like AJ is doing a good job of helping you regain some confidence.

  4. I had all three things happen last weekend when Okie needed a trailer-loading demo. I stayed with that horse all the way around our property, trying to keep pressure on his poll until he stopped running backward and would come forward to release! The problem is, these horses have so much more energy than I do!

  5. sounds like you had a productive session with AJ - good to get him going a bit...

    Man, I wish we had horses for sale like that around here! There are about 3 I would like to try - Of course, I would have no idea how to ride a reiner or a cutter - lol. Probably a good thing in the end!!

  6. This is slightly OT-but relevant if anyone ever wants to check if a horse has this built in tendency to resist pressure in their face or head. I place my hand on the bridge of the horse's nose, about where a bosal would go and apply pressure. It's very interesting to note the differences in how horses react to this. The most willing horse will simply break at the poll and drop his nose away from the pressure. Others will not break at the poll but will back away from the pressure. Others don't immediately react-either they have to think about it or they just don't acknowledge the pressure at all. The most resistant horses will immediately push back on your hand or root into the pressure-these are horses that usually react like AJ. They learn to "give" but their first instinct is always going to be to push(or pull back in the case of pressure applied to their poll) back on pressure applied to their head.
    A pleasure horse trainer taught me that and that was one of the methods he used to help pick his futurity prospects. Doesn't mean a horse will not learn to automatically give to the pressure, but it does help a person to understand the initial reaction they may get when they apply pressure to a horse's head and train accordingly.